My name's Marcus Bromhead, it's 1976 and I'm studying for my final exams at The Farrsholt School for Boys. I walk to school every day because walking gives me time to think, and because my mother can't afford to buy me a bicycle. On the way home I pass a narrow strip of land that belongs to the allotment society, strips of cabbages, sprouts and potato plants all growing at peculiar angles and tended to by flat-capped old men with baggy trousers and torn shirts. Sometimes I sit in the long grass by the railway track that runs along the length of the plots and think about setting fire to a little patch of the tinder-dry scrub. I imagine what it would look like, the embankment burning in an uncontrollable inferno, clouds of fetid smoke blowing across the tracks, tool sheds and bunkers ablaze. But then I think about all the small insects and animals that would be burned or left homeless by my wicked deed, and I look up to the clouds to force myself to think happier and less destructive thoughts. The enormity of the sky and everything beyond helps calms my mind.
I've never been lonely. Solitary yes. Alone, almost certainly. Lonely means minding being on your own, which is something that's never bothered me. I suppose loneliness becomes a problem when you get tired of the things that entertain and amuse you, and that's rarely an issue because I like to read and watch films. And I enjoy doing my homework, especially mathematics, I'm good with numbers and equations and all things arithmetical. My teachers say I could quite easily get to Oxford or Cambridge university next year because I'm destined to achieve straight 'A' s. I desperately want to do well enough in my exams to make it to university, I'm hoping I won't feel as if I'm being tortured all the time there.
So, films. I feel good when I leave the protective darkness of the cinema, it makes me feel important, significant even. For an hour or so I walk along the streets after a movie, pretending I'm a cop, or a wizard, or an astronaut, someone with character and a destiny. I become aware of my clothes and my hair and I pretend people are looking at me thinking I'm someone special. Gradually the feeling wears off though, and I'm left swamped with my old insecurities and the baffling complexities of being alive.
The kids at school know I'm a loner and it turns them from friendly, innocent kids into cruel versions of themselves, packs of angry bullies that think it's fun to torment and frighten me. It's ok though, I'm used to it. April fools day's the worst, it has been since I started school, it's almost as if the day gives them an excuse to torment me even more than they usually do. It validates their behaviour, gives them some kind of justification to turn the screw tighter and tighter until I give in and accept my fate. Which I'm determined never to do.
Last year, on the first day of April, Johnny Blagshaw (a terrifying little bulldog of a creature) waited for me to go to into the toilets, then came skidding in to the restrooms shouting all kinds of abusive threats, he kicked open the cubicle door, rammed my head into the lavatory pan and flushed the cistern. They were all there waiting for me to come out, laughing and jeering. Even stuff like that I can cope with though, because I know one day I'll get my own back. I believe it's called 'Karma,' although I'm not completely sure what 'Karma' is. I like to think it's like a great big, vaporous cloud of data somewhere way up high beyond the heavens that God draws from to maintain a balance in the world. But really it's probably something that allows people to perform good deeds in order to rationalize their bad behaviour. Whatever, I'm secure in the knowledge that you get back what you give out, eventually.
So, April 1st. Because I know what's likely to happen to me I've decided not to go to school today. I'm going to sit on a bench in the park and watch the birds. There's an old lady there that feeds them with breadcrumbs and smiles at me, and there's a bloke that's always asleep under a dirty blanket. When he's awake he sometimes talks to me, although I can't understand him. He mumbles a lot and stinks of alcohol and tobacco. I sometimes think I'm going to be like him when I leave university, burned out from three years of equations and worry.
I did this last year, sat in the park and just stared at things. But in previous years this day was a living hell. Sometimes it would be Johnny Blagshaw on his own, but usually there'd be others. 'Big' Dave Musgrove, 'Pukey' Colin from the third year (a ferrety little boy with a facial twitch) and Baines. Baines is the worst, he never takes part but just stands by watching the others kick the back of my legs or tie my shirt sleeves together. I'm sure he's not human, with his thick neck and square head, there's something about him that makes my flesh crawl. When I'm being picked on he watches from the sidelines as if I'm fair game and that it's all a part of normal life. He's got this creepy grin that scares me more than anything they can do to me, and I'm sure it was him that urinated in my bottle of orange juice last year.
On April 1st the year before last, when they'd tied my shoes to the top of the rugby post and had given me a good kicking, I noticed a look of bitter disappointment about him when they'd let me go. There wasn't a twitch of conscience in his face, just this smug look of satisfaction and pleasure, almost as if he'd masterminded the whole thing. I usually laugh along with the others as a way of showing them I don't mind what they do to me, a sort of forgiveness that allows me a period of rest from it all, a self-constructed amnesty if you like. But Baines just stands there and stares his cruel stare long after they've all finished.
At least this year I know they'll be no gravel in my sandwiches or lumps of shit in my school bag, and that's good enough for me. I've got the day planned out, after the park I'm going to take a stroll along the alleyway behind the restaurants and fast food joints. I like the smell of the city down there, the stink of decaying food, mouldy cardboard and extractor grease. The overflowing waste bins, the precariously stacked crates of empty bottles and the steamed up windows. It all reminds me of the real world where I like to think of people being friendly and honest. Sometimes I see a man leaning against a wall outside one of the kitchens, his overalls soiled with the day's pot splatter and fat, the stump of a cigarette tilting from a corner of his mouth. I spoke to him once, well, I nodded my head and said hello just so I could hear the sound of my own voice.
I'm drawn to places like these, I pretend I've stumbled by chance into a world far beyond mine where survival is dictated by rules and principles different to those that govern my life. I love that people don't know my face and that when they look at me they don't feel immediately compelled to laugh or push me over. This is where the real people live and work and it's a world where I can walk without fear, especially today.
'Big' Dave Musgrove once told me my shoe laces were undone so I bent over to look at my feet and he punched me hard in the face with his well-rehearsed uppercut. I laughed, of course, and then asked him if he'd hurt his hand. He said I deserved another thump because it was April 1st and I was lucky to have got away with it. Later that same morning he told me Baines wanted to meet me after school by the headmaster's office so I waited until everybody had gone home and stood in the corridor by the door. I don't know why, but a part of me hoped that Baines had decided to apologize for the years of torment I'd suffered at the hands of his friends. Stupid, I know but the prospect of making some sort of connection with someone I'd always feared was too good to resist.
The empty school felt ghostly, so much energy and spirit stored up during the day slowly seeping out from the fabric of the building. Distant noises, inexplicable squeaks and groans. I didn't know if they came from my overactive imagination or whether they were the lingering echoes of the day's furore. Baines did turn up, eventually. He sprang out from behind a curtain and told me to watch my attitude. I said I didn't realise I had an attitude so he slammed me against the wall and stuck his knee into my groin. Then after he'd faced me with that horrible leering sneer of his, he ran back down the corridor laughing. I think that was when I made the decision to stay away from school on April 1st.
I'm going to take the bus to Regent Street and walk among the crowds of shoppers and tourists. I feel like I need to experience the speed and urgency of life and allow the sounds of the place to wash through me. I love the pressure there, the pulse of the traffic and the blur of faces, the smell of exhaust fumes, perfume and coffee. I'll walk quickly and with purpose to make it look like I'm busy, I'm anonymous in the city and that means I'll be safe.
I wonder if they know what it's like to be someone else? They don't know how lucky they are, all those people in the real world. They probably take the crucial things for granted because they've never known what it's like not to have them. What they think of as being important are really trivial things that they wouldn't miss if they were in my shoes.
It must be nice not to have to look over your shoulder every few minutes to see if someone's about to grab your neck or kick your back. Or to not worry about accidentally rubbing arms or touching hands, or saying some innocent word that you know will be deliberately misconstrued, or being ridiculed because your shoes are old and scruffy.
Two years ago on this day I got off the bus at Piccadilly Circus and took a walk down Oxford Street to take my mind off things. I had this peculiar urge to wander around the shops and touch the clothes that hung from the stainless steel hangers. To this day I don't know why that particular longing came over me, I suppose it might have had something to do with connecting with reality, at least that's what the doctor told me, after my mother had decided I needed to speak to someone professional about my behaviour.
It started when the noise of the city crept into my head and I couldn't get rid of it. The cars and buses, vans and trucks, they all blurred into a single, continuous cacophony that bored through my brain until I had to put my hands over my ears to try to stop it. The incessant noise became unbearable so I went into a large department store and started to pick up as many of the clothes as I could fit in my hands, then I let them slip onto the floor in little piles between the counters. It felt good to feel as if I had control over something, to reassure myself that I could make something happen just by making a decision.
But afterwards, when a sales assistant asked me what I was doing I just held on to a table and wouldn't let go. I held on so tightly I couldn't make myself move my hands, it was awful. But what really frightened me about the whole incident was that I felt this enormous rage build up inside me, like I was about to fly apart with the pressure. And I had this compulsion to break something, anything. The lady put her hand on my shoulder and asked if I was all right and that's when I burst into tears. It must have been that small act of kindness that set me off. A policeman took me home that afternoon and I slept until early the following day.
But I'm not very good at this self-pitying thing, and I don't think I'll ever get to the bottom of what happened that day. I have my books and my films and my maths, really I prefer living in the moment, not thinking too deeply about stuff and not weighing up the rights and the wrongs of life.
I like maths, the teachers show you what to do and then you can work things out for yourself. It has a predictability about it, a logical dependability that appeals to me. It's not like English, or history or geography where you have to understand somebody else's viewpoint before you can appreciate what's going on, it's clear cut and trustworthy and I can control its destiny. It's why I go to school and it's the only justification I have for putting up with all the crap. I sometimes lose faith in the system but I'll never let it take away my spirit.
It won't be so bad tomorrow at school, they won't have an excuse to make my day a misery. Who knows, I might even fight back? I did that once, I shouted "butthole shithead" at Johnny Blagshaw, the words didn't really make any sense but I couldn't think of anything else at such short notice. As I walked away I repeated the words to myself hoping that the sound of them would absorb some of my shame, restore my dignity even. But I just felt as if I'd disgraced myself. Even when I try I can't be angry. I felt no sense of achievement, no satisfaction, no sensation stronger than mild contentment. And with each cautious step away, I constructed spiralling scenarios that involved increasingly violent retribution and gibbering pleas for mercy. I've taken my punishment with grace and decency ever since.
I'm back home now lying under the bedclothes listening to my little radio through a tiny earpiece that keeps falling out on to the sheet. The dodgy signal's my connection to a better place, somewhere free from anger and vengeance, like the university that would have given me a refuge from Johnny Blagshaw and his cronies,( although I think there might have been others to take their place.)
I've thought about that academic world a lot, imagined blending in with the other students trooping between lectures and sitting in huddles by the river bank. I might have grown a beard, worn a dufflecoat and wandered about the campus with books tucked under my arm. I could have cycled off to lectures with my notes in a wicker basket over the front wheel, and I'd have shouted "see you later," and "in the pub tonight?" to people as I freewheeled past them. I might have joined a folk club and learned to sing or play the guitar. And I might have had a girlfriend that wore glasses and knew about wine.
Apparently yesterday (Sunday) was April fool's day and because I bunked off school I've missed the scholarship exam which took place this afternoon (April 2nd.)
And that's the punch that really hurts.